Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I am … a first generation American on my father’s side, barely second generation on my mother’s. Neither of my parents had the means to attend college, but both taught me to love learning, to care about people, and to work hard for whatever I wanted or believed in. Their parents had the foresight to leave the old country, where Jewish ancestry and faith meant exposure to pogroms and denigration of one’s human worth.” (U.S. Congress, p. 49)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the first Jewish woman (and only the second woman) appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Although not a religiously observant Jew, she is very conscious of her Jewish roots, as evidenced by the statement quoted above and by her reply to Senator Edward Kennedy at the confirmation hearings. When he suggested that her personal experience and pioneering work with gender discrimination would also sensitize her to racial discrimination, she said:
Senator Kennedy, I am alert to discrimination. I grew up during World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing a place in [Pennsylvania], a resort with a sign out in front that read: “No dogs or Jews allowed.” Signs of that kind existed in this country during my childhood. One couldn’t help but be sensitive to discrimination living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II. (U.S. Congress, p. 139)
I first heard about Ruth Ginsburg in my third year at Columbia Law School , when Professor Gerald Gunther invited me to his office to discuss the possibility of a judicial clerkship. Professor Gunther told me that based on my record he would recommend me to Justice Felix Frankfurter of the United States Supreme Court, but added that when Ginsburg was recommended to Justice Frankfurter two years earlier, Justice Frankfurter had replied that he would not be the one to break the tradition of male clerks only.
I met Ginsburg about a year later, as I was starting and she was completing a clerkship with Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, one of the few federal judges who hired female law clerks at that time. Her ability and tact became evident very quickly. It was motion day, and Judge Palmieri was about to rule on a motion that had just been argued. Ruth sent him a note, asking whether he could reserve decision, because she thought there was a Supreme Court case on point. She was, of course, right. There was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that was dispositive and that, amazingly, neither lawyer had mentioned.
Years later, I learned from Professor Gunther that even though Judge Palmieri was impressed by Ginsburg’s record, he was very reluctant to appoint her and did so only after a great deal of urging by Gunther, who knew him personally, and a written promise by a male student that if the appointment of Ginsburg did not work out he would leave his law firm job to take over the clerkship. That, of course, was not necessary. Palmieri was delighted with her work, and they remained lifelong friends.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, the child of a Jewish immigrant father and a native-born Jewish mother. Her father, Nathan, came to the United States from Russia when he was thirteen. Her mother, Celia (Amster), was born in the United States, her parents having emigrated from a small town near Cracow, Poland, four months before she was born. Neither of her parents had the financial means to go to college. Her father worked as a furrier and later in a men’s clothing store.
Some of Ruth’s earliest memories are of going to the public library with her mother, trips that imbued her with a desire to read and a love of learning. She also remembers her mother shopping for bargains to save money for Ruth’s college education. Although her mother did not work outside the home, she impressed upon Ruth the need to be independent and to develop her own ideas to the fullest. It was her mother who most influenced her life. “I think of her often when I am in challenging situations that compel a top performance” (Swiger, p. 55). She wore her mother’s pin and earrings when arguing cases before the Supreme Court because, she thought, her mother would have liked that. Her mother, she said in her acceptance speech in the Rose Garden, was “the bravest and strongest person I have known, who was taken from me much too soon. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons” (NYTimes).
Ruth attended P.S. 238 and Madison High School in Brooklyn and edited the school newspaper, the Highway Herald, for which she wrote articles on the Magna Carta and on the Bill of Rights. In high school, she was also an active member and officer of the Go-Getters, a pep club for sporting and social events; she wore its black satin jacket, sold tickets to football games and other functions, and chipped her tooth twirling a baton when Madison played Lincoln High School (Ayer, p. 16).
Upon graduation from high school, she received various awards and a New York State scholarship. Cornell University, which she chose, provided additional financial assistance, and she also worked at part-time clerical jobs to earn extra money (Swiger, p. 56). She majored in government and credits Professor Robert E. Cushman, with whom she studied and for whom she worked as a research assistant, with arousing her interest in a career in law. It was, she said, “[the] heyday of McCarthyism [and Cushman defended] our deep-seated national values—freedom of thought, speech and press. … The McCarthy era was a time when courageous lawyers were using their legal training in support of the right to think and speak freely. … That a lawyer could do something that was personally satisfying and at the same time work to preserve the values that have made this country great was an exciting prospect for me” (Gilbert and Moore, p. 156).
She credits another professor at Cornell, Vladimir Nabokov, with influencing her reading habits and writing style. “He loved words … the sound of words. … Even when I write an opinion, I will often read a sentence aloud and [ask,] ‘Can I say this in fewer words—can I write it so the meaning will come across with greater clarity?’” (Swiger, p. 55).
Ruth graduated from Cornell with high honors in government and distinction in all subjects and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In her freshman year at Cornell, she met Martin David Ginsburg, whom she married in June 1954, shortly after her graduation. Martin, who had been a year ahead of her at Cornell, had just completed his first year at Harvard Law School when they married. Although she, too, was accepted by Harvard Law School, they moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Martin was sent by the army.
Ginsburg took a job with the Social Security Office in Lawton, Oklahoma. When she disclosed that she was pregnant, her superior decided that she could not travel to a training session required for the position for which she had qualified and gave her a lower position at less pay. On July 21, 1955, she gave birth to a daughter, Jane, now a professor of law at Columbia Law School and a leading authority on copyright and trademark law.
The following year, Ginsburg started Harvard Law School. There were only nine women in a class of five hundred. At a dinner he hosted for the women students, Dean Erwin Griswold asked each to explain how she justified taking a place in the class that would otherwise have gone to a man. A room in the Lamont Library was closed to women, making it impossible for Ginsburg to get a periodical she needed to do a cite-checking assignment for the law review. Professors sometimes called on women students “for comic relief” (Gilbert and Moore, p. 158). Even though she was married, had a small child, and gathered notes for her husband’s classes as well as her own (while he was seriously ill), she succeeded in getting elected to and carrying on her work for the Harvard Law Review.
In 1958, Martin graduated from Harvard Law School and accepted a position with a prominent New York law firm. Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School, where she was also invited to join the Columbia Law Review and tied for first in the class.
Harvard Law School refused to give her a degree, as is routinely done nowadays for a student who transfers after the second year. However, Columbia Law School gave her a degree, even though she had studied at Columbia only her last year. Years later, when she had become prominent, Harvard offered to give her a degree, on condition that she give up her Columbia degree. She declined to do so.
Based on her outstanding record, Professor (later Dean) Albert Sacks of Harvard Law School recommended her as a law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter, but he was not willing to take a woman. Indeed, notwithstanding her impressive credentials, she had great difficulty getting any job. “Not a single law firm in the entire city of New York,” she said, offered her a position (Carlson, p. 38). As she explained in a 1993 interview, “In the fifties, the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. … But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot, that combination was a bit much” (Gilbert and Moore, p. 158). Finally, through the efforts of Professor Gerald Gunther, she was hired as a law clerk by Judge Edmund L. Palmieri.
Following her clerkship with Palmieri, Ginsburg did have offers from law firms, but decided to join the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure. The purpose of the project, financed by the Carnegie Foundation, was to do basic research on foreign systems of civil procedure and to study and propose improvements of U.S. rules on transnational litigation. Professor Hans Smit, originally from Holland, with law degrees both from Amsterdam University and Columbia, joined the Columbia Law School faculty to direct the project. Truly egalitarian, he not only appointed women (Ginsburg and the writer of this article) to work on the project, but paid them and the men the salary that men were being paid by the major law firms at the time. Ginsburg learned Swedish and worked in Sweden with a Swedish judge on a book on Swedish civil procedure, for which she was later awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Lund.
When she completed work on the project and indicated her interest in pursuing an academic career, Smit urged her appointment to the Columbia Law School faculty, but to no avail. On the recommendation of Professor Walter Gellhorn, a member of the Columbia faculty and at the time the president of the American Association of Law Schools, Ginsburg accepted a position at Rutgers, one of the few law schools willing to accept women on its faculty at that time. She taught at Rutgers from 1963 to 1972.
While at Rutgers, Ginsburg became pregnant with her second child. Afraid that if the pregnancy were discovered she might lose her position, she concealed it by wearing loose-fitting clothes borrowed from her mother-in-law. The Ginsburgs’ second child, a son, whom they named James, was born in September 1965, shortly before the fall semester began.
It was at Rutgers that Ruth Ginsburg first became involved in women’s rights. In the late 1960s, sex discrimination complaints began “trickling” into the New Jersey affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They were referred to her, Ginsburg said, “because, well, sex discrimination was regarded as a woman’s job.” Her students prodded her “to take an active part in the effort to eliminate senseless gender lines in the law” (Gilbert and Moore, p. 153), and she was inspired to do so by the women referred to her by the ACLU. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Reed v. Reed, unanimously overturning a state law that gave men preference over women for appointments as administrators of decedents’ estates. Although Ginsburg did not argue the case, she was the principal author of the brief. Following the Reed victory, the ACLU voted to establish a Women’s Rights Project, and Ginsburg became its codirector. Columbia finally offered her a position, and in 1972 she became the first tenured woman on the Columbia Law School faculty.
Ruth Ginsburg divided her time between Columbia and the Women’s RightsProject. From the numerous sex discrimination cases brought to the project, she carefully selected those that raised issues she considered “ripe for change through litigation.” These were mainly employment-related cases that, in her words, “lent themselves to the strategy of sequential presentations leading to incremental advances” (Cowan, pp. 390–393).
In determining whether a statute violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has applied three tests: (1) the “rational basis” test, i.e., whether there is a rational basis for the law; (2) “intermediate scrutiny,” whether the law is “substantially related” to the achievement of an “important government purpose”; and (3) “strict scrutiny,” applied to laws that draw a distinction based on race, which is considered a “suspect” classification. Ginsburg argued that laws that draw a distinction based on gender should also be subjected to strict scrutiny. The problem, as she explained at her confirmation hearings, was that while “race discrimination was immediately perceived as evil, odious, and intolerable,” laws discriminating against women were often justified as protecting women (U.S. Congress, p. 122). She therefore chose cases that would show that using gender as a basis for different treatment was harmful not only to women but also to men.
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) was perfect for that, “a gem of a case” (Cowan, pp. 396–397). Wiesenfeld’s wife had died in childbirth, and he wanted to care personally for their infant son but was denied Social Security benefits. The Social Security Act provided survivor’s benefits to women with children, but not to men with children, even though men and women paid Social Security taxes at the same rate. Ginsburg argued that while this regulation appeared to protect women, its effect was to deny women workers and their families the protection provided to male workers. A unanimous Supreme Court held the regulation unconstitutional. The Court did so, however, without holding that gender-based distinctions were, like race-based distinctions, suspect and subject to strict scrutiny. A majority of the Court has still never held gender a suspect classification subject to strict scrutiny.
In 1996 the United States Supreme Court decided another gender discrimination case, United States v. Virginia. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the Court, which held that the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those “who seek to defend gender-based government action,” she wrote, “must demonstrate an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for that action.”
Ginsburg was on the Columbia Law School faculty from 1972 to 1980. During that period she directed the ACLU Women’s Project, taught courses and seminars in civil procedure, conflict of laws, constitutional law, and sex discrimination, wrote a number of articles, and prepared the first casebook on gender-based discrimination. In 1980 she was appointed by President Carter to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a court that hears some of the most interesting federal cases. Two of the cases on which she sat while on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals are of particular Jewish interest: Goldman v. Secretary of Defense and U.S. v. Pollard. One concerned a Jewish captain in the U.S. Air Force who insisted on the right to wear a yarmulke (head covering) in the military, the other a Jewish man who had been charged with passing classified information to Israel, pleaded guilty, and later sought to withdraw his plea.
On June 14, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated by President Clinton to be an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Some women’s groups opposed her appointment because she had spoken and written critically of the Court’s rationale in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that there is a constitutional right to abortion, but most women’s groups and numerous scholars and academics strongly supported the nomination. She was confirmed by the Senate as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on August 3, 1993.
Ginsburg has experienced great adversity in her life. Her only sister died when she was very young. Her mother became ill with cancer just as Ruth was starting high school and died one day before her graduation, at which Ruth was to speak. During his third year at Harvard, her husband was in a car accident and later was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that few had ever survived and underwent massive surgery and radical radiation while in law school.
She has also had great good fortune: first, in her remarkable intellect, which manifested itself at every stage of her life; second, but perhaps equally important in making it possible for her to reach the pinnacle of her profession, a husband and family who have been wonderfully supportive in every way, as she often notes. At Harvard, Martin assured his friends that she would make law review and later it was he who organized support for her appointments to the U.S. Court of Appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court. In her own words, he has been her “best friend and biggest booster” (NYTimes). “A supportive husband who is willing to share duties and responsibilities is a must …,” she says, “for any woman who hopes to combine marriage and a career.” (Ayer, 28).
The extent of her family’s belief in and support for her is perhaps best symbolized by an entry in her daughter’s high school yearbook. Under “ambition,” it stated, “to see my mother appointed to the Supreme Court” (NYTimes).
In an address to the American Jewish Committee after her appointment to the Supreme Court she said, “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
Although she is the first Jewish woman on the Court, she follows such outstanding Jewish jurists as Brandeis, Cardozo, and Frankfurter, and will no doubt continue their tradition of greatness.
To see video clips from an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the MAKERS project, click here.
Ayer, Eleanor. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Fire and Steel on the Supreme Court (1994).
Carlson, Margaret. “The Law According to Ruth.” Time (June 28, 1993): 38.
Cowan, Ruth. “Women’s Rights Through Litigation: An Examination of the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, 1971–1976.” 8 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 373, 390–393 (1976).
Gilbert, Lynn, and Gaylen Moore. Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times (1981).
Ginsburg, Ruth Bader. Address to the Annual Meeting of the American Jewish Committee, May 1995. Reprinted in “See What Being Jewish Means to Me.” Advertisement by the American Jewish Committee. NYTimes, January 14, 1996, 13, and “Biographical Data.” Public Affairs Office, U.S. Supreme Court, 1993.
NYTimes, June 15, 1993, A1, A22–24.
Swiger, Elinor Porter. Women Lawyers at Work (1978).
U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Nomination of Ruth Ginsburg to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Hearings. 103d Cong., 1st sess., July 20–23, 1993.
Goldman v. Secretary of Defense, 739 F.2d 657 (1984).
Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986).
Kahn v. Shevin, 416 U.S. 351 (1974).
Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251 (1971).
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705 (1973).
United States v. Pollard, 959 F.2d 1011 (D.C. Cir. 1991).
United States v. Virginia, 116 S.Ct. 2264 (1996).
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975).